Saturday, December 22, 2007

Beau Jo's, Idaho Springs



Beau Jo's, unique pizza in the heart of the Rockies
(Image from Liz Is Working, who reviewed this place back in April.)

Beau Jo's is a Colorado pizza chain in a number of locations. It's unusual in pizza chains in that it includes calorie counts on the menu (!) and also offers a selection of "SmartMeal" pizzas, with lower-calorie toppings and a whole wheat crust. In fact, they have a philosophy around their customers' health. No sugar in the crust; they use honey as a sweetener instead.

We started, of course, with the cheesy artichoke dip (no spinach), which was heavier on the cream than the artichokes, but still pretty good. They serve it with bread made from the pizza dough, so it's hard to resist going back for more. For our main course, we got Chip's Pie, with artichoke hearts, chicken breast, black olives, Roma tomatoes, and feta cheese. We also got their soup and salad bar.

The salad bar was decent, with the usual salad fixings and some average pasta salads. I liked the bowl of chicken soup I got there, too. Good flavor and thick noodles. But the centerpiece of the meal was the pizza. It's thick-crust (not deep dish), and the outer crust is huge, rounded and solid. The sauce had a good, robust flavor, but there wasn't too much of it. By contrast, there were plenty of toppings, all fresh and delicious.

In keeping with their use of honey to sweeten their dough, Beau Jo's provides honey for you to dip your thick crust in when you're finished with the rest of the pizza. It goes especially well with the whole wheat crust we got.

Good, hearty pizza, and friendly service in a casual dining atmosphere. Perfect for mountain communities, and that may be why Beau Jo's continues to be so popular in Colorado.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Morimoto



Morimoto, Japanese cuisine from the famed Iron Chef in downtown Philly

We first tried Morimoto's restaurant several years ago on a visit to Philly. At a recommendation from my father, we sat at the sushi bar, and ended up right across from the station of the chef himself. It was a real treat to watch him work, illuminating for us that he loves the "chef" part of being a celebrity chef more than the other, and that likely he started a restaurant mainly so he could cook more. He seemed to be having a great time preparing at his station, tossing scraps into his mouth from time to time. When one of the staff came over to request a picture, though, he grimaced, or looked resigned, then smiled for the camera and the tourists, and as soon as possible went back to preparing.

That's the kind of place you want to go back to. It helped that the sushi was the best we've ever had. So when Mark and I found ourselves in Philly again in December, we dragged Ned, Laura, and Brent there for sushi and other delights.

The interior is decorated with gentle waves. The lights cycle through a rainbow of colors, slowly enough that you look up halfway through the meal and say, "wait, wasn't the lighting blue when we came in?" It seems like a very late 80's-early 90's decor (if "modern" is now the sparse, clean look of a place like Citrine--very different restaurant, I know), but that's not to say it's bad. It is certainly a very relaxing atmosphere, if not what I would think of as Japanese.

The service was not quite as good this time as on the previous occasions, when we were at the sushi bar (the last time, we got the "omakase" or chef's dinner, and the server asked about our dietary preferences, explained each of the courses, and handwrote them out on a paper for us when we asked for a menu, explaining that there was no fixed menu, it was just whatever the chef was preparing at the time). Still, we had no real complaints about it, and the food more than made up for it.

Sushi. Oh, the sushi. Creamy octopus that didn't taste rubbery, heavenly tuna, divine fatty tuna, shrimp, yellowtail, mackerel, red snapper, salmon... plus a spicy tuna roll, a tempura shrimp roll, and another I can't quite place. We ordered the $100 sushi plate for four and it probably would've been a good dinner for the four of us (Brent doesn't like raw fish, and opted for the "Morimoto Surf'n'Turf," which he pronounced excellent).

However, we were greedy, so we also ordered tuna pizza and cha-soba, cold soba noodles with sauce, as well as a mushroom and seafood soup that we were advised to eat by eating the solid vegetables and meat with chopsticks and then drinking the broth. The tuna pizza, we'd heard, was something he insisted on putting on the menu despite the advice that "Philadelphia isn't ready for it." It was delicious, though I thought the soba noodles were a bit better, and the soup had a great blend of flavors: fish and seasonings, nothing overpowering or too strong.

Though we were pretty full after that, we couldn't resist dessert. There's a sorbet trio, which turned out that night to be coconut, chocolate cardamom, and some kind of berry. Laura got the chocolate-caramel parfait, which was declared the winner, although the chocolate cardamom sorbet was amazing as well. They were so good that they obscure the memory of the dessert Ned got, which I'm sure was delicious as well.

We can't wait to go back. It's funny that, living in the Bay Area, our favorite sushi is from a Philly restaurant. We can only hope that Morimoto opens a place out here by the Bay sometime soon. Until then, we'll have our memories...

Nos Ancêtres Les Gaulois


Nos Ancêtres Les Gaulois, veggies, roasted meat, and cheese in the heart of Paris
The Ile de la Cité, behind Nôtre Dame, consists of one main street running the length of the island. It's a great place to shop and eat, with little wine shops, chocolate shops, and the famous Bertillon's ice cream (which is worth the trip by itself). During our 2001 trip to Paris, we were referred to this restaurant and enjoyed the baskets of raw veggies and dried meat, and the all-you-can-drink wine. The Ile de la Cité has a heavy American/English population, so the staff is fluent in English, and it's got a fun atmosphere that we really enjoyed.

The interior is all broad timbers, firelight, and copper cauldrons, in keeping with the restaurant's name ("Our Ancestors the Gauls"). The first thing you get when you sit down is the aforementioned basket of veggies: celery, cauliflower, carrots, bell pepper, radishes, and more. You can nibble on those while deciding on your main course, which comes down to beef or lamb, generally (the night we were there, we also had the choice of duck). Once you've placed that order, you can go to the all-you-can-eat salad bar, which is pretty euphemistic, because it consists of a couscous salad, duck paté, another pasta salad, corn, and a basket of sausages that you cut whatever you want off of.

The meat itself is nothing special, either kebabs or off a spit, but the ratatouille that accompanied it was terrific. After the meats came a cheese plate that included a blue cheese, Emmenthal, Camembert, goat cheese, as well as another softish cheese we didn't catch the name of. All very good as well, even if we were nearly completely wrong at identifying them. The blue especially was very popular (again, there was a ton of cheese, and I presume they'd refill it if you wanted more). Desserts were good as well, a traditional French apple tart, chocolate mousse, shaved lemon ice served in a lemon, and an ice cream dish that had walnuts on top of and a dark fruity sauce beneath the ice cream. By that point we were all pretty full, so we took a long time to finish dessert.

But the real hit was the all-you-can-drink wine. We ended up chatting for about an hour and a half of our four-hour dinner with a woman at the next table. She was bored by her company, I guess, but as she spoke only French, I had to translate for everyone. Also, she and most of our table were rather tipsy, which made the conversation even more entertaining as I had to repeat a lot of things that drunk people were saying in various languages. Her husband, a retired police officer, dragged out his wallet at the first opportunity to show us his police ID and his organ donor card. Next to them, a Brazilian who spoke English and followed the NBA talked about the French players in San Antonio (Parker) and Phoenix (Barbosa). But Huguette (if I'm getting her name right) was the chattiest. When she found out we were from San Francisco, she said it inspired her to dream. We told her that Paris inspired us to dream, too. It turned out that she lives in a suburb of Paris and had never been to this restaurant before, but like us, she enjoyed herself immensely.

I think that exemplifies the dinner experience. Nos Ancêtres Les Gaulois is a nice, casual, friendly place, and if the food isn't of great quality, it's at least French (the bread is therefore amazing) and so it's pretty darn good. You go more for the atmosphere than the cuisine, but that atmosphere is really worth it.

Blue Mango

Blue Mango, Thai food in a small Santa Clara location

We love Thai food, and yet there isn't really one Thai restaurant that stands above the rest. We go to Amarin a lot because it's the closest one. We used to go to Thai Pepper because it was the closest one (and they made a mean pineapple fried rice). The only other one we've reviewed in this blog was Siam Royal in Palo Alto, a restaurant we've visited exactly once.

But Blue Mango had come up in Best of Silicon Valley a couple times, and when a friend of ours came back into town and suggested it, we jumped at the chance to try it.

It's located on El Camino in Santa Clara, in a small space that used to be an Italian restaurant (they still haven't changed the glass on the partitions). The kitchen faces right out into the dining room a la Banana Leaf, so you can see and smell what's cooking. The friendly hostess surveyed the small room of twelve or so tables and told us that there was one party that was almost finished and could we just wait for them? Even though we said that would be fine, she apparently reconsidered and cleared off a table near the back for us to be seated earlier.

The menu is impressively varied and interesting-looking, with a vegetarian menu accompanying the regular one. They had a pumpkin curry special, which I tried, while Mark opted for the mango curry, and we started, of course, with tom kah soup. When you order, they ask for you to rate your spiciness level from 1 to 10 (some dishes have a higher minimum). We opted for three, the lowest the curry could go, while our friend went for five (which he would later regret).

The tom kah was quite good, with the usual landmines of cilantro and lemongrass, but not too spicy. Good coconut flavor, mushrooms, and moist chicken. Both the curries were slightly on the spicy side; not too much for me, but I had to take breaks. They were just right for Mark. I'd also gotten a Thai iced tea with soy milk, which was interesting to watch them make. They use half and half regularly, and seemed to put a lot less soy milk in mine than the half and half in our friend's, but it tasted just as good and did a nice job cooling the fires from the curries.

I enjoyed the pumpkin taste and would get the pumpkin curry again. The mango curry was less distinctive but still good as well. Overall, though, I don't think anything jumped out at us that would make this place worth the drive. The Bay Area's Thai restaurants are generally top-notch, and this one is no exception. However, there are two or three closer ones that we'd go to more frequently simply because they're closer. I wonder if this one won "Best of Silicon Valley" just because it's nearer the center of Silicon Valley, and something had to win.

Monday, November 12, 2007

I Tapas, Palo Alto

I Tapas
Traditional and "new" small plates off University Ave. in Palo Alto

Emerson Street in Palo Alto, where it crosses University, is a great place for eateries. There's the Peninsula Fountain Creamery Diner and A.G. Ferrari on Hamilton and Emerson, and Gordon Biersch, Buca di Beppo, Mantra, and Empire Tap Room in the next block away from University. On the other side of University, there's Patxi's Chicago-Style Pizza (the most authentic on the Peninsula), Evvia (the best restaurant in Palo Alto), and a new place called I Tapas that sits in the former location of Left at Albuquerque, a favorite of ours for a little while, until the food started to decline and they closed.

I can't even remember now what was there in between that incarnation and this new one, but I hope I Tapas will stick around for a while. It's fairly modern inside, with nice artwork on the walls and a close, but not crowded, dining room. We were told it would be a forty-five minute wait, but we got called not ten minutes later to come back to the restaurant for an available table.

We've done a few tapas places lately: Solera and Cascal are high standards to live up to. But I Tapas holds its own, with a nice assortment of small plates for different palates. We really enjoyed the grilled asparagus with Manchego cheese and serrano ham, the Spanish olives with roasted nuts and cheese crackers, the pulled pork BBQ with lettuce cups, and the Pinchos Morunos (skewers of lamb). The asparagus had great flavor, with just enough cheese and ham to complement it without overwhelming it. The barbecue sauce for the pulled pork was nice and tangy, and we enjoyed the innovation of putting it in lettuce cups. It was satisfyingly messy. And the lamb skewers proved to be the good kind of lamb, with some lamb flavor (not too gamy) and a really nice mix of Mediterranean spices.

If you like tapas, this is one of the better places to get it. There are so many good places to eat in Palo Alto that it's hard to get on our list, but I think we'd definitely go to I Tapas again. It's worthy of being on Emerson Street, that's for sure!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Citrine

Citrine, a new restaurant with diverse cuisine

Citrine is affiliated with Safeway, though at the moment that relationship's only effect is that they serve "O" brand organic products, and some particular combinations you might recognize from your Safeway shelves. Asked whether Citrine serves as a testing ground for future Safeway products, like packaged meals, the knowledgeable cashier said, "Not yet, but we're not ruling it out."

Everything about the interior is sparse and elegant, clean in line and surface. It's set up like a quick-serve cafe, where you order and pay at the cash register and then your food is brought out to you. They have an impressively diverse menu, innovatively cross-organized by type of cuisine and dinner course (appetizer, salad, etc.). Some of our group found this rather confusing (having to read across to see all the salads, for example), but overall we liked the layout and the selection.

The items we ordered came out as they were ready, so main dishes appeared before salads, in some cases; the attentive waitstaff don't really worry about whether everyone gets their dishes at once, nor whether you're done with one before bringing another. But that's what you expect in this kind of diner, and it didn't bother any of us.

So how is the food? Overall it got high marks. The flatbreads were particular favorites, but everything we shared around was good, and everyone cleaned his plate (with the exception of one friend who asked for no side salad and got it anyway--special orders are always tricky). The spicy pasta dishes actually had a good level of spice to them (to my bland palate), and everything had a nice, robust flavor.

If you're in the mood for a good, quick meal, check out Citrine. Chances are you'll find something you like there. Worth a return visit for sure.

Afton House Inn


Afton House Inn, little bed and breakfast in Afton, MN

During our tour of the midwest, we focused on two kinds of eateries: brew pubs for dinners, and brunch buffets on weekends. The Afton House Inn offers a delicious spread for Sunday brunch, so we talked our hosts into taking us down there (my stomach illness having run its course, apparently).

Reservations are recommended, and when you step into the dining room, it's clear why: it's very "cozy." Maybe fifty people could be seated around the central buffet island. The flip side of this is the excellent service: not only our server, but the host and another person in charge (the manager?) came over to ask how our meal was going. Along with the rustic charm of the building itself and the understated decor, simple dark woods and lightly patterned fabrics, that completed the hospitable feel of an old-style inn.

On to the food itself, where we certainly had no cause to complain. They were just swapping the pancakes out for more lunch-like items when we arrived, but we got the last of the breakfast and first of the lunch. The apple-stuffed pancakes were delicious, fluffy and thick, and they have a custom Belgian waffle station, which was very nice, but disappointing compared to the delightful mini-waffles at the Broadmoor. For the size, though, the selection of food was surprisingly large, and the quality excellent. In true midwestern style, they shone brightest in the pastry and dessert section. We loved all the cakes and cheesecakes we tried, the chocolate-dipped strawberries and the small tarts.

Fortunately, the inn is located near a lovely park for walking, because you're going to need to burn off a lot of carbs. Good food, but really the attraction here is the service and the feel of an old-style bed and breakfast in the crisp fall air. Definitely worth a trip from the Twin Cities for a nice brunch.

Jack Stack BBQ


Jack Stack BBQ, just what it sounds like, behind Union Station in Kansas City

When you go to Kansas City, you kind of have to get either barbecue or steak. Mark has relatives in Kansas City, by marriage on his sister's side, and when we asked her to recommend a place near Union Station (which we were visiting to fill out our list of the AIA's 150 most popular buildings in the United States), she and her husband came up with Jack Stack.
It's got a real "barbecue" feel to it, brick walls and high wooden beams, with wrought-iron ceiling fixtures from which lanterns dangle. The service is very hospitable and friendly, too, on which more in a moment.
Since Tim doesn't eat beef, we were careful to order pork ribs, salad, and the turkey/ham sliced lunch. The waitress talked us into the baked beans ("they're famous") and out of the "cheesy corn casserole," which we'd misheard her talking about at the next table as "cheesy cornbread," which sounded much better. Alas, it was not to be.
Well, we got our salads, and then waited for the rest of the meal. Our waitress came by to check on us a couple times, and when the meal still didn't show up, she got very exasperated, and finally found out that because we'd arrived late during the lunch/dinner changeover, our order had not made it back to the computers in the kitchen. Because of this, she not only brought us cheesy corn casserole, but told us that our whole meal would be comped. Try finding a place in California that will comp you for a late meal!
The turkey and ham slices were fine, the barbecue sauce on them pretty good. Tim was wary of the shreds of meat floating in the baked beans, with good reason, it turned out. He and Mark were less wary of the enormous ribs Mark was served, having just had a conversation with a friend who had said that the distinguishing feature of Kansas City barbecue was not so much the sauce as the cuts of the meat. The taste was mostly just barbecue, so it wasn't until the waitress came back and confirmed that there was beef in the baked beans that we found out that they had also mistakenly given Mark beef ribs rather than pork. (The funny thing was that the pork ribs were HER recommendation.)
Our waitress was very concerned about whether Tim was going to "flip out" at having mistakenly eaten beef. He assured her he wouldn't. She brought a pork rib over to try, and we found it vastly superior to the beef. If only they'd actually brought those in the first place!
The baked beans were very good, the cheesy corn casserole slightly disappointing. The salads, it must be said, were quite tasty, with a nice raspberry vinaigrette that was sweet, but not too sweet. Overall, we'd certainly go back there again, practicing a little more vigilance. Those of you who don't avoid beef should try the beef burnt ends--supposedly those are terrific. Burnt ends are something I've never seen at another barbecue place, and if we do find ourselves at Jack Stack again, we'd probably order the pork ones. Though knowing our luck, they'd probably bring us beef.

Solera


Solera, Spanish tapas in downtown Minneapolis

One of our favorite local restaurants is Cascal, a Mediterranean tapas place in downtown Mountain View, which deserves its own entry (or two) one of these days. Our Minneapolis friends, who also enjoyed Cascal, told us that Solera compares favorably to it, so when we visited Minneapolis, that was at the top of their list of places to take us.

It's a beautiful interior, dominated by red-brown brick and wood, the dining room semi-partitioned into several smaller spaces so you don't feel lost in a huge room. The tables are natural wood, polished smooth. It took a little while for us to get our server to come by, but we used that time to peruse their extensive tapas menu and decide on some options. We got the dish of olives in cava vinegar, an order of the cumin-toasted pumpkin seeds, and were told that the Chorizo-stuffed dates with smoked bacon were de rigeur. They were delicious indeed! We've become enamored of dates recently, having found nice fresh ones at our local market, and these were great ones, their sweetness meshing with the spicy sausage and smoky meat flavor of the bacon. The pumpkin seeds were good, too, the cumin adding a nice spice to the crunchy nut flavor.

For the second round, we got deviled eggs with blue crab and cumin, scallops "a la plancha" with serrano ham and saffron, kikos with Moorish spices (which turned out to be corn nuts, though the server insisted we call them "toasted corn"--they were still good), and sobrasada (a soft sausage) with quince honey and sheep's milk cheese. All of these were just as good as the first round: the eggs and scallops particularly stood out. I thought the crab and cumin went very well with the deviled eggs, enhancing the flavor without overpowering it, and the scallops were just tender and cooked perfectly.

The wine and margarita were quite good, and Solera actually has some interesting non-alcoholic drinks, including a "Pom-Pom" (pomegranate puree mixed with another fruit juice that, regrettably, slips my mind for the moment) that was pretty good. We left Solera very happy, agreeing that it compares favorably to our favorite Mountain View tapas place. Score one for Minneapolis!

Raccoon River Brewery


Raccoon River Brewery, brew pub in Des Moines

Going through the midwest, we were reluctant to try any ethnic cuisines without a local guide, for the obvious reasons. Brew pubs, however, were pretty midwestern (second only to steak houses, perhaps), and so we found ourselves in one after the other, from Colorado to Iowa to South Dakota to Davis, California.

Given that we were going to be in Des Moines for dinner, and that there was a place there called "Raccoon River Brewery," well, we couldn't NOT stop. The Brewery is located at the corner of 10th and Mulberry, or perhaps 11th; the directions were vague and the street signs not much more help. Still, downtown Des Moines was more hopping than we expected, and we had to wait a bit for a table.

The interior space is very nice, a large two-level restaurant with the bar facing you as you enter and the main seating area behind it. Back and to the left, slightly raised from the first level, is an area whose wooden floor was reclaimed from a local historical gymnasium.

The beer (according to Mark) was good, not outstanding. The hot artichoke and asiago cheese dip was good, but the pub bread (as good as what we were given at the table, but with garlic!) was outstanding. Sadly, we were a little disappointed with the Mediterranean pasta. The sauce was rather bland and there were few of the veggies promised.

Overall, we liked the atmosphere and, of course, the name and logo. It's possible that some of their pizzas and burgers are better than the pastas, or that the rest of the pastas are good. Seems like a good place for atmosphere and drinks, and take your chances with the food.

Sudwerk

Sudwerk, brew pub in Davis, CA

We stopped by Sudwerk on the way home from a long road trip during which we hit many brew pubs. There weren't many people there on a Tuesday night, and we arrived close to their closing time, but they were happy to stay open and serve us.

The ambiance is nice, with a big oval bar dominating the center of the room and the brewing apparatus off to the side, but visible. We sat at the bar and chatted with the friendly bartender, enjoying the bar chairs and the decor. There's nothing remarkable about it, but it does say "brew pub" very effectively.

We got the hot artichoke and spinach dip, which we got at every brew pub we tried, and it did not disappoint here. Less cheesy (hence, I suppose, why they left "parmesan" out of the name), but still good. I think I like these dips better when the spinach is included. Artichoke provides good texture but gets rather lost in the cheese. Spinach has a good contrasting flavor and color, plus the illusion of healthiness.

The entree, a salmon dish, was good but not outstanding, and Mark said the same of the beer he tried. All in all, we were very pleased with Sudwerk as a way to end our trip. We're not likely to make a special run to Davis to visit again, but if we were in the area, we'd sit down at the bar and order us up some spinach and artichoke dip, and chow down.

Kincaid's (Burlingame)

Kincaid's Fish, Chop, and Steakhouse in Burlingame
Great food, view, and service--worthy of the name of its southern counterpart

When I lived in Torrance, one of my favorite restaurants was Kincaid's on the Redondo Beach pier. We went there mostly for brunch, often enough at one point that we became semi-regulars. After I moved north, we went back for a delicious birthday dinner one year (the year Xoflow was formed), and have tried to go there whenever we're in the area.

Last year, someone told us there was one in Burlingame. We'd been avoiding going, first because we weren't convinced they were related, and second because we were worried it wouldn't live up to the lofty standards of the first. Finally, we put it on our list to try, and when American Express sent along a gift card for $20 off dinner there (out of nowhere), we decided that fate was speaking to us.

It's hard to get to. You need to get off 101 at Anza or Broadway and wind your way back to Airport Way, then snake along the bay shore for a mile before finding it tucked away behind the Sheraton. The location isn't quite as spectacular as the Redondo Beach pier (though, to be fair, little is), but it's lovely in its own right. The elegant dining room has a huge windowed wall looking out onto the water, where you can see San Francsico and Oakland (weather permitting), the Bay Bridge and planes on approach to SFO. It also has the same polished wood and sparkling chandeliers that the SoCal location has, and the same friendly service.

Our waiter was enthusiastic and amiable, very entertaining and attentive. He started us off with some warm garlic bread from the oven while we made up our minds on drinks and appetizers. Although we'd been trying artichoke dips across the country, we opted for the brie crusted with macadamia nuts. Between the three of us, we ordered two specials: the Petrale Sole Dore with roasted red pepper mashed potatoes, and the Swordfish steak with porcini mushrooms and acorn squash puree. We also each got one salad: a Caesar (with anchovies), a wedge, and a maple vinaigrette.

The maple vinaigrette at the SoCal Kincaid's is one of the things I remember best about the meal there, and the one here did not fall short. The salads were all fresh and light, with a good balance of ingredients and tasty dressings. The brie appetizer was terrific, too, warm but not too messy. The macadamia nuts provided a nice texture and subtle flavor to go with the cheese.

The main courses received high marks as well. The light, fluffy sole was perfect; the mashed potatoes with roasted red peppers blended the tastes of both very nicely, and the grilled asparagus that came with them were tender and crunchy. The mushrooms seemed an unusual pairing with the swordfish, but were perfectly cooked, their meaty texture and moderately strong flavor going well with the strong, firm steak.

We would love to have tried a dessert, but we were simply out of room by the time the menus arrived. Definitely need to go back again when it's light out, so we can appreciate the view. If you can find your way there, it's more than worth the trip.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Broadmoor Hotel, Colorado Springs


Broadmoor Hotel
Brunch buffet with outstanding food

In our ongoing review of the country's outstanding brunch buffets, Mark advises that no tour of Colorado would be complete without brunch at the Broadmoor. A favorite from his younger days, it appears to have retained all of the goodness of childhood memory.

The Broadmoor itself is a historic building, built in the late 1800s, and one of the AIA's 150 most popular buildings in America. Driving up, it's easy to see why. The Broadmoor is an elegant building in a lovely suburb, with mountains flanking it and greenery accenting its soft peach finish. It's very Western in its practicality; the walls are almost plain, with subtle decorations on the top story and plain white trim around the windows. Even the roof is modest but pretty, a small cupola overlooking the trees in front and the lake behind.

Inside, the decorations are more ornate, with beautiful chandeliers in well-appointed lounges, decorated ceilings, and portraits adorning the walls. We got to walk through this lovely hotel on the way up to the second floor Lake Terrace Dining Room, where brunch is served.

For the size of the room, the number of options was staggering, probably not too many fewer than the immense casino buffets in Las Vegas. In addition to the traditional egg, pastry, and griddle items, the brunch featured a full lunch spread, with hot beef, pork, and chicken dishes, as well as a salad bar, deli bar, cheese plate, and dessert table. We tried to sample most everything, but ran out of space long before we got there (and we kept going a little after that anyway).

Many brunch buffets have an omelette bar, but how many have an eggs Benedict bar? The Broadmoor has both. The omelette bar featured a novice who had a little trouble flipping the omelette, but her co-workers were very supportive and we tried not to make her feel bad about it. The Belgian waffles were not standard-sized, but were almost "silver dollar" waffles, made four at a time: the perfect size for a brunch buffet. More buffets should have them, and specifically they should have the light, fluffy, perfect versions the Broadmoor had.

It would take too much time to list all the outstanding food there. Everything we tried was delicious. Of the buffets we've tried, this one ranks up with the Bellagio as our favorites.

Spice Market Buffet, Las Vegas


Spice Market Buffet
Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas

The Big Two of Vegas buffets are the Bellagio and, apparently the Wynn. But Spice Market was voted best buffet in 2007 (then again, this is Vegas, so there are roughly two awards for every person, show, and restaurant) and had been getting great reviews, so we decided to check it out for brunch on our recent trip.

The name is the last holdover of the old Aladdin Casino, now Planet Hollywood. We loved the Aladdin and its Middle Eastern theme, but the Roc Bar is gone, the Desert Passage is now the Miracle Mile, the sweeping mural of winged horses is replaced by lights that change color slowly, and the whole Arabian Nights theme is now a style we can best describe as "generic 1980s." Blah. But the name Spice Market buffet continues on, reminding us of what once was, probably because they haven't figured out whether changing the name to "Lunch Counter" will mean they have to give back the awards.

At any rate, the quality of the food shouldn't be dependent on the name, and we did quite like Spice Market. It remains a touch short of the Bellagio (we have yet to try the Wynn), but it's a good, solid brunch. Good fruit selection, including a couple nods to the Middle Eastern name (figs and prunes); a standard omelette bar; Southern style cornbread griddle cakes (like small pancakes, but with a crunchier outside--pretty good); delicious pastries (surprisingly lacking in the cinnamon department); and very bland scrambled eggs and potatoes. In addition, they had some lunch dishes that were good, if unremarkable. There was plenty there to eat, but for the price, just walk across the street and pay another dollar to get better eggs, more pastries, and fluffier pancakes, not to mention more interesting lunch dishes and good salad selections.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

La Scala, Burlingame


La Scala
Traditional Southern Italian food done right

The problem with a lot of would-be Southern Italian food is the weak tomato sauce. I rarely get overdone or underdone pasta (to my unrefined palate), but a good, hearty tomato sauce with the right amount of seasoning (and by "seasoning," I mean "garlic") is hard to come by. Buca's marinara is a good one. La Scala, happily, makes another.

It's in a nice, hip part of Burlingame, near a train station and high school (not on Broadway). We walked around investigating the area and were in the mood for Italian, so we settled in. The waitstaff are nice and the restaurant has a good southern Italian ambiance that I think works better in the day. Still, it was nice, with wide front windows and pretty wood beams, and though it was small and a little crowded, we had a good table near the window from which to watch the street.

The menu is traditional Italian (with "Insalate" and "Primi Piatti" headings, for example). We tried the "La Scala" salad, which was quite tasty, a nice mix of sweet pears, crunchy greens and nuts, and tangy cheese and dressing. Then we split a pair of penne dishes: the Penne Alla Norma (with eggplant, spinach and ricotta), and the Penne Salsiccie E Pollo (sausage and chicken). Both came quickly, nice and hot. The ingredients in both were fresh, and as I've mentioned, the marinara sauce was full-bodied enough on both. I liked the Penne Alla Norma a little better, but both were good and we'd have no hesitation ordering from them again.

La Scala joins a small, select group of quality Southern Italian restaurants. If it weren't in Burlingame, halfway up the peninsula from us, we'd go there more often for sure.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Eat'n Park, Pittsburgh

Eat'n Park
Perkins/Denny's/Embers/Big Boy-like chain of diners in Western PA that was surprisingly not as bad as it looked

According to Eat'n Park's website, when the chain was founded in 1949, ""Park & Eat" was as common a sight as "Drive Thru" is today and could not be copyrighted. In a brainstorm, [the founder] decided to reverse it -- to Eat'n Park."

The restaurant itself is very much in the mold of a Perkins or Denny's or Big Boy, a family-themed restaurant that offers diner-like fare (big breakfasts, sandwiches, steak'n'chicken entrees with gravy and mashed potatoes). But Eat'n'Park goes a step beyond that. In addition to the usual diner fare, they offer a gluten-free menu, an "Eat'n Smart" menu, and a low carb menu, things I would expect to see more in a California restaurant than a western Pennsylvania one. The salad bar is about what you would expect, but has some good healthy stuff in it as well, and the soups included a wild rice and portobelle mushroom soup that was quite tasty.

And of course, there are the trademark smiley cookies, sugar cookies with colored frosting in a big smiley design. They also had (for a limited time!) dinosaur cookies that were cute enough that I had to get one for our friends.

The big plus of those family diners is usually the friendly, homey service. We were there at an off hour, so we didn't get attended as well as we might've hoped, but the waitress was very personable when she did come by. The food was pretty tasty overall, a notch above what we were expecting. If this is representative of the whole chain, then we'd pick it over other family diners, if we were set on eating at a family diner-type place.

The Pie Place, Pittsburgh

The Pie Place
Local pie shop in Houston, PA (about 10 mi. south of Pittsburgh)

The Pie Place is exactly what it says it is. Out in the countryside of western PA, you would imagine they make a pretty good pie, and you'd be right. The pastry is tasty and flaky (and probably really bad for you), the fillings are numerous and delicious, and the people are quite friendly. It's not a restaurant, just a place where you can buy pies (no longer ice cream, though the kid behind the counter and I agreed that a nice vanilla ice cream would be a great thing for them to have on hand). They have all sorts of fillings, regular sized pies as well as mini pies, and smaller pastries, as well as "gobbs," which appear to be a western PA specialty--think moon pies without the chocolate coating, only freshly baked with real cake.

We got an apple and a blackberry pie that were both so good we contemplated whether we could freeze a pie and get it back to the Bay intact. Regretfully, we were unable to, but if you are ever near Houston, don't miss a chance to get a pie at The Pie Place.

Gandy Dancer Saloon, Pittsburgh


Gandy Dancer Saloon
American bistro fare in Pittsburgh's Station Square

Attached to the more elegant Grand Concourse restaurant in Station Square is the Gandy Dancer Saloon (named for its sister restaurant in Ann Arbor, also located in an old railway depot). We had come to Station Square in search of a late lunch or early dinner, and in the sea of chain restaurants (Houlihan's, Buca di Beppo, Hard Rock, Hooters) there was this nice-looking place with an outdoor patio where we could enjoy the warm afternoon.

The setting was perfect for people-watching, and the ambiance inside the saloon seemed good, too, very "western bar." Our waiter was very friendly, attentive, and helpful, though he seemed a bit confused when we asked for the tuna sandwich to be delivered without bacon (we changed our mind and said he could go ahead and bring it, and ended up getting a sandwich with no bacon, cheese, or sauce). There were two menus, the dinner menu from the Grand Concourse and the "pub" menu from the Gandy Dancer itself. We opted for appetizers and sandwiches, trying the raw plate, the brie and chutney, the tuna sandwich (as mentioned), and the salmon burger. The appetizers were great, but we found the sandwiches somewhat disappointing. The tuna was supposed to be chili-dusted, but was actually somewhat bland, and the salmon burger (made of ground salmon, not a fillet) was a little salty. In both cases, though, the bread was good and fresh, as was the house bread (warm twisted bread sticks--we refilled twice) and the fries.

Our friends who got entrees seemed pretty happy with their meals, though we didn't try them. On the whole, this was a good choice for a place to sit and watch people go by on a sunny afternoon, and certainly the majority of the food was quite good (we loved the brie and chutney). Their menu changes from day to day, but we'd recommend ordering from the Grand Concourse menu as the food seems to be a bit better from there.

Fox's Pizza, Pittsburgh

Fox's Pizza
Pizza chain founded in Pittsburgh: pizza and distinctive "wedgie" sandwiches

Okay, disclaimer: we totally wanted to go to Fox's Pizza for the name. We occasionally look at franchising opportunities when we tire of the high-tech world, and Fox's Pizza Den came up as a good one, plus they have very little presence in California (the downside is that just within walking distance of our house there are five good pizza places, with another opening soon, so it's a pretty saturated market). Anyway, they were founded in Pittsburgh, so on our trip there we decided to try them out.

We had the chance to go there twice, once for lunch and once for dinner. For lunch we got a "wedgie" sandwich, one of Fox's Pizza's distinctive menu items. Mine was a chicken ranch; my friend's was a pepperoni wedgie. The wedgie is basically a small pizza folded in half and then cut in half, so each half of the sandwich is the size of a quarter slice of a small pizza. They're quite good: the chicken ranch wedgie was not very pizza-like, but the chicken and sauce were good, and eating them on a pizza crust was definitely better than standard bread (again we return to my precept that bread quality is a critical and often-overlooked part of sandwich-making). The pepperoni wedgie also got glowing reviews. They were both satisfyingly messy, too. The only drawback was that the Fox's Pizza was a counter service only location, so we had to go sit outside on a bench to eat.

The location in Pittsburgh proper was counter only as well. Situated on the fringe of a shady neighborhood in Mount Washington, we arrived late at night (but before the odd closing hour of 10:45) for a takeout pizza. The pizza remained warm and fresh on the twenty minute trip home and proved tasty as well, with a nice crisp crust, flavorful sauce, and good toppings that enhanced the flavor rather than smothering the pizza. It was received to general acclaim by all. Given that the distribution of pizza places around Pittsburgh seems somewhat more sparse than here in California, I think Fox's Pizza well worth a visit, wherever in the area you happen to be.

Carson Street Deli, Pittsburgh


Carson Street Deli
Voted Best Deli in Pittsburgh

Living on the west coast (and north of Jerry's Famous Deli), it's hard to get good deli, and sometimes the Philly boy in me misses it. Of course, if you don't eat beef then you miss out on the best stuff (pastrami and corned beef), but you can still get ham on rye, a good pickle, good deli mustard, and so on.

So when we were visiting Pittsburgh, we made a detour to the South Side to visit Pittsburgh's Best Deli (by some vote). The Carson Street Deli is located at Carson and 16th in the middle of a nice Bohemian-upscale neighborhood that looks like it would be fun to explore on a day when most of it wasn't closed (as it was on Labor Day, when we went).

Still, like a good deli should be, Carson Street was open on the holiday, and so we trooped in. The "outdoor patio seating" advertised on CitySearch turned out to be a couple plastic tables; the inside space is half taken up by the deli counter, with four tall tables crammed between drink coolers in the other half. It has a great "deli" feel to it--a deli should be all counter--and a great menu to choose from. You can either build your own sandwich or order one of their specials. We got sandwiches like the "Schnickelheimer" (egg salad, ham, and cheese on a croissant) and the "Mark Cuban" (ham and chicken with Swiss melted over it). All the sandwiches came with a pickle spear (good).

The bite I had of the Schnickelheimer was quite tasty--the egg salad was standard, good ham and cheese. But a croissant just isn't a deli bread. Similarly, the "Mark Cuban," though a good sandwich, was on a soft white roll. I think next time I would get it again but ask them to make it on rye bread. We tried the Buffalo Chicken Ranch as well, and that was interesting because the Buffalo Chicken in it was a chicken salad, which I quite liked.

Overall, the sandwiches were good. We didn't get to try Primanti Brothers, which comes up #1 and #2 when you Google "sandwich pittsburgh," but that's first on the list for next trip. We'll see how they compare! Standing on its own, we would definitely go explore the Carson Street area again, and wouldn't mind having lunch at the deli, but I doubt we'd go out of our way to eat there. Unless the rye bread is just amazing, next time.

Penn Brewery, Pittsburgh



Penn Brewery
German food and microbrews in Pittsburgh's Deutschtown

Visiting friends in Pittsburgh, we tried to find some restaurants that would be fun to visit while there. In the Bay, it's hard to find good German food, but western Pennsylvania is right near the German-descended Pennsylvania Dutch, and has a much larger German population. So it seemed like a German restaurant would be a good option, plus there was the chance to try some local brews for Mark and our other friends.

We didn't know that the Brewery is, fittingly, found in Deutschtown, an area of Pittsburgh settled by German immigrants in the later half of the 19th century (parts of which look like not so great neighborhoods now; fortunately there is covered parking behind the restaurant). While dining at one of their long tables, we were seated next to a man who'd emigrated from Germany in the mid-1900s and married into a local family. He used to live in the area but had moved away to California and was back with some other Pittsburgh natives (including a woman who'd gone to the same college my mother did).

The friendly, convivial atmosphere is just one of the attractions of this place. They're accommodating to infants, happily for our friends and their ten-month-old daughter. In all respects, it seems like a family brew pub, if that designation makes any sense. And the menu is very German.

Our party tried the WURSTPLATTE (sausage sampler), the SAUERBRATEN (pot roast), and a grilled chicken with red pepper/white wine sauce (not on the online menu), as entrées. But first, the BROTZEITTELLER (German meat sampler) and KARTOFFELPUFFER (potato pancakes) for appetizers, which everyone loved. The applesauce and sour cream went perfectly with the crisp-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside pancakes, and all the meats and cheeses were big hits, not to mention the small sour pickles, the thick, tasty bread (rye, not brown bread), and the mustard that came with it. The entrées themselves were good, though Mark commented that our chicken breast wasn't really German. Still, it was excellent all around. I didn't try any of the beers, but nobody seemed to have any complaints (also nobody said "wow," so take that as you will).

The waitstaff were friendly and helpful, but in keeping with our experience of German restaurants, there was a very prolonged gap between the appetizers and the entrées. A good restaurant will have the entrées out right around the time you start to wonder where they are; we had a good twenty minutes of wondering before the food appeared. However, as I said, that seems to be the norm for European restaurants in general and German restaurants in particular. The idea is that you take your time over a meal, let the previous course settle before moving on to the next one.

Somehow, even after all that food, we had to order dessert. The Black Forest cake and the carrot cake came out quickly, and we were impressed by the restraint in the size of the slices. Each slice was only a little over an inch high and was a smallish wedge, at least by big restaurant chain standards. That's to take nothing away from the quality, which was outstanding--one of the best carrot cakes I've had, and though I don't have a lot of experience of Black Forest cakes, the Brewery's made me wish I hadn't eaten so much dinner.

They also have an outdoor patio with live music, which we walked through. Looked like a nice place to sit on a summer night. All in all, we'd definitely recommend the Penn Brewery, as long as you make sure you have enough time for a good, long evening out.

Cafe 222, San Diego


Cafe 222
Healthy and not-so-healthy breakfasts in San Diego's Gaslamp District

Another of our San Diego traditions is breakfast at Cafe 222, a place Mark read about that lived up to all of our expectations when we first tried it a few years ago. Situated at Second and Island (222 Island St., hence the name), it is within sight of the convention center, especially if you sit outside to enjoy the warm summer morning.

The scrambles and the waffles are the things to get at Cafe 222. We've tried the cornbread waffle, the pumpkin waffle, and the waffles with toppings, and they're all good--though we recommend the pumpkin or cornbread waffles, because you're unlikely to get them anywhere else. If you want something a bit more out there, go for the peanut butter waffle with banana, which is every bit as good as it sounds.

On the side of the scrambles, you can opt for green eggs and Spam, yes, Spam, where the spinach provides the green. You can also get Joe's Special, a more traditional scramble with spinach, potatoes, bell pepper, and onions, though it's less traditionally topped with sprouts. That plus the pumpkin waffle made up our breakfast this time around, as good as we remembered. The sprouts work well with the scramble, which is a nice blend of ingredients held together well with eggs and cheese. Everything is fresh, and despite the self-described quirkiness of the cuisine, the chefs clearly know what works and what doesn't.

The only problem with Cafe 222 is that everyone knows how good it is, and there's almost always a wait. But they provide fresh coffee, so leave yourself an extra half hour for breakfast and head on down to Second and Island some morning for peanut butter waffles, and green eggs and Spam.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Zucca, Mountain View


Zucca
Mediterranean cuisine

Another Sunday, another Mountain View brunch experiment. The last place in the Castro Street area that offered brunch was Zucca, a nice little Mediterranean place tucked into the restaurant block between Villa and Evelyn. They offer omelettes and other egg dishes, along with French toast--but no pancakes.

The restaurant itself is very pretty, and like most of the restaurants in that block, has an outdoor patio where you can sit and enjoy a lovely Sunday afternoon. Brunch is served until 2 pm, so it's a good option for the more leisurely riser. The downside to that is that if you don't get there until after noon, as we did, you might not be in the mood for breakfast fare any more.

Mark got an omelette with St Andre cheese, fresh chives, and crème fraîche, and I opted for the Turkish Lamb Köfte Wrap, because for some reason they didn't feature the French toast this time (there was some confusion because the menu they had on display was different from the one they handed out--the French toast was on the display menu). The service was slow, and if we hadn't been in a bit of a hurry to get to the farmer's market, we wouldn't have minded so much, because the food was definitely worth the wait.

The omelette was fluffy and cheesy, the crème fraîche complementing the eggs nicely. My only complaint was that it was fairly difficult to taste the chives in it. The lamb wrap was great, with tasty, well-spiced lamb and good (if scant) tzatziki sauce and soft, flavorful flatbread for the wrap. The service could be faster, but the ingredients are of great quality, well prepared, and you can't beat the location.

Taqueria Los Charros, Mountain View


Taqueria Los Charros
Authentic Mexican food--and American breakfast!

When I worked in downtown Mountain View, before living there, we had a lunch place that we just referred to as "the cheap Mexican place," because you could get a quesadilla and a Coke for under five bucks and that was a good lunch. The food was not only cheap, it was good, freshly made and served quickly with a smile. That, as much as the price, kept us coming back long enough to learn that it was called Taqueria Los Charros, on Dana Street a block north of Castro. They've since opened another location in Mountain View, on El Camino, with more seating, but the original location on Dana retains its small, cozy atmosphere. There are a couple outdoor tables where people like to lounge, and a small number of indoor tables, but the food comes so quickly that we rarely had to wait more than ten minutes to sit down.

Fast forward a few years to our ongoing quest to find brunch in downtown Mountain View. We walked past Los Charros, and saw a sign out front that advertised "American Breakfast until 11 am." The other day, we were in the mood for a breakfast burrito, and since we already liked Los Charros, we slipped in at 10:55 to give it a shot.

It turns out that not only do they have the expected breakfast burrito, they also have pancakes and French toast--a real American breakfast! I was in the mood for something cinnamony, so I tried the French toast while Mark got a breakfast burrito with chorizo. They were more than happy to let us order breakfast, not being too attached to the clock, and the food came pretty promptly.

The orange juice was a nice surprise. It's not chilled, because it comes right out of a juicer in the back of the serving area, under the TV that always seems to be showing futbol. It is, however, delicious. The breakfast burrito is big, tasty, and stuffed full of egg and sausage. The French toast was good too, though made with plain white bread. It's certainly not as fancy as the French toast at a place like Stacks or Original Pancake House or Country Gourmet, but it satisfied my cinnamon jones, and they provided pancake syrup with it.

Overall, it was a simple breakfast, but like everything else at Los Charros, it was very reasonably priced and tasty. For a quick, cheap, good meal, this is a great option any time of day.

Clarke's, Mountain View

Clarke's
Burger and malt place that also does breakfasts

Because we live near Castro Street in Mountain View, we go to a lot of restaurants there, but we found that when we wanted to go to Sunday brunch, we usually went further away: Hobee's, Stacks, Country Gourmet, Original Pancake House (reviews forthcoming). Walking down to the Mountain View Farmer's Market a couple Sundays ago, we decided to see if there was a good place for Sunday brunch along Castro, which has been built up recently with a lot of good new restaurants.

The list is surprisingly short. Zucca offers a couple brunch entrees, Le Boulanger offers some egg sandwiches, as does Posh Bagel. We got to El Camino without anything really jumping out at us. Then Mark said, "Isn't Clarke's just around that corner?" We remembered that the one in Los Altos (which has a curious message that they are "no longer available" through waiter.com) served breakfast, so we walked that extra half block. As we got closer, we saw indeed that the sign said, "Breakfast served," so we walked in.

The criteria for a Sunday brunch place is that they have pancakes and omelettes/scrambles--not too much to ask. Clarke's, which we'd remembered as a small single-room place with terrific shakes (basically a burger/malt counter with a few plastic tables) actually has a great brunch menu. We got blueberry pancakes, a cheesy scramble, and one of their "house" cinnamon rolls (with an "orange twist"). Not only that, but they have a sun room and an outdoor patio in addition to the small room we both remembered. We sat out there until our food was ready, then went and fetched it from the counter. It's nice being able to sit out in the sun and relax on a Sunday morning, very different from some of the Sunday brunch places that are packed with families and full of noise.

The scramble was eggs, onions, peppers, seasoned potatoes, and lots of cheese. Very yummy, even if I ended up setting a big lump of cheese aside. The blueberry pancakes were good too, if not spectacular. Only the cinnamon roll was a bit of a disappointment. We'd both expected a little more gooey cinnamon--spoiled by Cinnabon--and by the time I got to eat it, it had cooled down somewhat. Good icing, though, and good bread, so overall it was fine, and you could definitely taste the trace of orange in it. The meal was reasonable overall--about what you'd expect for brunch.

We still have a couple places to explore, but Clarke's has definitely added itself to our list of brunch places.

Oh, and I hear they do good burgers and malts, too.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Angelica's Bistro, Redwood City




Angelica's Bistro
Salads, sandwiches, and desserts in a European open courtyard setting

We're not familiar with Redwood City, so we took the time to explore when we were there last Friday night for an art show. On Main Street, Mark found an interesting-looking bistro behind an antique store, so we decided to give it a shot.

You have to walk down a little alley to get to the restaurant proper, or through the adjacent store. The arched entrance, stone-paved alley, and antiques give it a distinctly European feel even before you get to the courtyard where most of the restaurant's seating is located (they have live music there most weekend nights, but a noise complaint, we think, kept it quiet the night we visited). Small tables, flowers, and old statues really give you the feel of being tucked away in a small patio behind a Paris cafe. It's so Parisian, in fact, that upon seeing "French toast Monte Cristo" on the menu, my mind tricked me into thinking it was a "croque monsieur." Fortunately, I liked what it was when it came, even if it wasn't what I was expecting.

The food more than measures up to the setting. We started with crostini, small pieces of toast with various toppings: red bell peppers and capers, blue cheese and walnut, grilled and marinated eggplant and mint, marinated cherry tomatoes, and cream cheese spinach and artichokes. The cream cheese might have been my favorite; it was hard to decide. For our dinner, we got a couple sandwiches: the aforementioned Monte Cristo (which is actually ham, turkey, and melted Jack cheese on slices of French toast) and a smoked chicken with roasted pepper, pesto, and melted Provolone on ciabatta. The Monte Cristo was served with fruit preserves and Dijon mustard on the side for dipping, and the French toast gave the sandwich just enough sweetness that both worked equally well. I've said before that a great sandwich depends on the bread, and both the French toast and the ciabatta were top-notch. The melted Jack cheese really added flavor to the sandwich as well as making it pleasantly gooey. I didn't notice the Provolone as much on the smoked chicken, but the chicken and pesto went really well together, the red peppers providing a nice accent.

We ordered both with small side salads. There was no choice of dressing, but fortunately the house vinaigrette is quite nice. The salad ingredients were all fresh and tasty, very enjoyable. Our only regret is that we were so full after the meal that we had no room for any of the delicious-looking desserts. Or the homemade crepes. In fact, we're planning several return visits to sample more items on the menu, and to relax in the outdoor patio. The owner was in attendance the night we dined there, walking around and talking to everyone, clearly very much enjoying his new venture and already familiar with a number of regulars. Would that we lived close enough. If you find yourself in downtown Redwood City, definitely make time for a stop to Angelica's.

Zankou Chicken, Southern California

Zankou Chicken
Mediterranean quick service chicken

Technically, Zankou Chicken is considered a quick service restaurant (QSR), the current eponym for fast food: a simple restaurant where you order at the counter and wait or (if there's a crowd) sit at plastic faux-wood tables until your food is ready. The "QSR" designation is, of course, to avoid the label "fast food," which now makes people think of mass-produced microwaved burgers. McDonald's and Burger King are also considered QSRs, but there the similarity to Zankou ends.

A family-owned chain, Zankou may be one of the few QSRs with an Armeniapedia entry (I didn't know there was an Armeniapedia until I looked up Zankou). The chain has become a Southern California fixture, with a cult following of fans hungry for the spiced chicken, garlic paste, and pickled turnips. I'd previously been to the Burbank and Van Nuys locations, and on our way back from San Diego, we decided to meet a friend at the Anaheim store.

Zankou offers roasted chicken and chicken "tarna," spiced and cooked on a rotating spit like gyro meat. You can get the smaller wrap, which comes with pickled turnips and the delicious garlic paste, or you can get a "tarna plate", which we shared, complete with hummus, tahini sauce, and a couple pitas to make sandwiches if you want. The hummus is creamy and not too garlicky, and the tahini is nice and rich as well. The chicken remains the star attraction, though: tender, perfectly seasoned, and plentiful, it's the kind you keep picking at pieces of even after you're full, just to keep the taste in your mouth. The garlic paste is unique, again not too strong, but with plenty of flavor. And I have a soft spot for the pickled turnips, but they are pretty strong and even I don't usually end up finishing them.

We also had falafels, which are huge and crunchy. You cut these in half or quarters rather than popping the whole thing in your mouth as with some falafel balls or patties. They're almost the size of a pool ball. Mostly bready, not the best falafels I've had, but good nonetheless.

There was an online form where you could tell the Zankou owners where you wanted a new location. I put in San Jose and they said that at the time, that was their leading vote-getter. I can only hope they act on it before too much longer. If you pass through Southern California, you need to visit one at one point just so you can say you did. And pick up a t-shirt while you're at it.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Ruby's Diner, Redondo Beach


Ruby's Diner
50's style beachfront diner in Southern California

I lived near Ruby's for three years and only went there a handful of times, but when we stopped in Torrance on our way to San Diego, that was the first place I thought of for breakfast (sadly, Kincaid's is only open early on Sundays for brunch--that review will have to wait for a while, or be a retrospective).

Inside, the red and white uniforms of the staff match the decor. Around the ceiling, suspended fish swim through the air, and the booths are all shiny red faux-leather vinyl. Your waiter or waitress may not quite match the buxom proportions on Ruby's model, but this IS the Southern California beach--they're bound to be just as perky and friendly. Ours certainly was, recommending the multi-grain pancakes over the malted waffle, which I opted for. We also tried the breakfast tacos and the corned beef hash and eggs.

The hash drew high praise, made with real corned beef, and the potatoes served with the tacos had great flavor and light texture. Breakfast potatoes are hit and miss--either too bland, undercooked, overcooked, or somehow drained of all their moisture. Ruby's had none of these problems, mixed perfectly with the onion for a great side to the tacos. The tacos, like miniature breakfast burritos, had a good mix of eggs and cheese, except in manageable portions. And the multi-grain pancakes were good and fluffy, though I didn't notice much different about the taste other than the occasional nut. They did slightly overcook the "over easy" eggs, but that's a minor problem.

Not to say it wasn't good. If you like a diner breakfast and are lucky enough to live near a Ruby's, you'd be hard pressed to find one better. And if you're lucky enough to live in Southern California, you can watch the community pool out the window, and the ocean just beyond it, while you enjoy your meal.

Dick's Last Resort, San Diego



Dick's Last Resort
Bar food, rude waitstaff, fun atmosphere

If you're looking for a quiet place to have a business lunch, you'll want to avoid Dick's Last Resort. If you don't mind bickering with the waitstaff and getting napkins thrown at you while you eat some pretty good bar food, it's the place to be.

"You can't kill a man born to hang," the legend reads under the sketch of a surly looking man, presumably the eponymous Dick, that makes up the logo of Dick's Last Resort. You might be greeted by a scrawled chalk mark on the floor, if you enter via the Fourth Street side. The patio and host are on Fifth Street, where this time the host asked us if we wanted inside or outside. "Whatever," we said. "Well," he replied, "then sit somewhere," and turned away to the next customers.

At the next table, once we did sit down, a boy engaged in a prolonged paper-throwing battle with another boy further down the table, his father encouraging him all the while. His waitress made a large dunce cap out of paper and yanked it down onto his head at one point, to his squeals of delight. She was much more surly than our waiter, who just sat down at the empty spot at our table and scribbled down our order.

The sandwiches and fries are the things to get at Dick's, though the recent addition of huge salads is a welcome one (even if they only provide the illusion of health, being full of cheese and slathered with dressing). The Big Pig, a pulled pork sandwich with slaw, is well worth getting (might be worth asking for extra sauce if you like your barbecue saucy, though). Their chicken breast sandwiches are good as well. And of course, the fried food is hard to find fault with. Haven't tried the burgers, but they're something of a signature item there, so I can't imagine they're not as good as the rest of the fare.

Dick's is a tradition for us--we've now gone every year for the past seven or eight or something. It's just a fun place to have lunch, and the food is consistently good, if not spectacular. Bring your appetite and your sense of humor, and you won't regret it.

(Note: there's a Dick's coming to Las Vegas. We'll have to try that one out for New Year's.)

The Cosmopolitan, San Diego



The Cosmopolitan
Mexican cuisine in Old Town San Diego, in a pretty courtyard in an old building.

Old Town San Diego is a state park preserving many of the buildings and streets of the original San Diego, at least in a 2 x 3 block area. Dirt streets and adobe-style buildings house modern restaurants and tchotchke stores now. As a tourist destination, it probably ranks between Seaworld and museums, but at least some of the restaurants are good.

The Cosmopolitan was recommended by several people in its prior incarnation as Casa de Bandini, so we were eager to give it a shot. The building is mostly there to frame the courtyard; the host station is just in the entryway, mere feet from the entrance to the central atrium. A matronly grandmother type led us outside, where fountains and flowers create a nice, relaxing atmosphere for the roving mariachi band to ruin. We were fortunate to escape them.

Chips and salsa arrived immediately: three different kinds of salsa, none of which skimp on the spice. One was too hot for me, the others tolerable, but everyone else enjoyed them. Everything on the menu looks good, and from the sampling we got, doesn't disappoint. The Burrito Camarones, chicken Enchiladas, and soft tacos were all good, and devoured quickly. Not too spicy for me, but flavorful, and the beans and rice were good garnishes. Those who got margaritas found them rather fruity and not too strong.

The real problem was the service. Once the chips were brought and our order taken, we had to flag down the server twice to get anything: more chips, a wedge of lime. The caesar salad we ordered with dinner never came, and when the server noticed it, she didn't seem particularly apologetic, asking only, "oh, that never came out?" We told her to just remove it from the bill. She did, but it took a while for us to get the bill at all. Perhaps that's just the laid-back culture, or maybe it was a busy night, but it was noticeable and it annoyed us just a touch. The food wasn't that good that we'd go out of our way to go back--though if we found ourselves in Old Town again, we certainly wouldn't avoid it.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Cafe Sevilla, San Diego




Cafe Sevilla
Tapas and coastal Spanish specialties

As I may have mentioned before, there is no shortage of good restaurants in San Diego's Gaslamp district, one of the reasons we love attending Comic-Con there. For Saturday night, we wanted to try to find something a little more special, and since we both love tapas, we gravitated to Cafe Sevilla on Fourth Street, after walking by it several times.

The restaurant has a great brick interior with Spanish artwork everywhere. The lighting is low in the picture, but not so low that you can't see your food or the person across from you. We were told there would be a 45-minute wait for a table for two, but just as we were saying that was fine, the manager said he had a table at the bar where we could be seated immediately. We took that, because sitting at the bar in most places still gives you access to the full menu. It may just be a little moisier and less formal, but that wasn't a problem.

Our waitress was very friendly and eager to explain anything we had questions about. She confirmed, sadly, that the andouille sausage was pork and beef, so I let Mark have all of that when our paella came.

The paella is their specialty. Fortunately, they offer a tapas version of it, which is what we got (the bottom dish in the picture), in addition to chicken croquetas (like crab cakes) and pisto manchego (cheese over stewed vegetables). The menu (PDF) is broken up not only into entrees and tapas, but also tapitas, very small plates all under $5. We ordered exclusively from the tapitas menu, except for the paella tapas, and found that three dishes plus the bread were enough for a meal.

Oh, the bread. We both love fresh bread, and there at the bottom of the tapitas menu is a fresh-baked loaf of French or olive bread. We had to get it, and it did not disappoint. It comes with a creamy garlic aioli, not too strong, and a lightly spiced red sauce. But the bread is good just on its own, the olives rich and ripe, the crust crackling and the interior soft and firm, with a flavor that doesn't get overwhelmed by the olives.

I also ordered a gazpacho, being on something of a vegetable kick lately. Gazpacho is often spicy, but this one wasn't too bad for me, just full of tomato flavor with enough seasoning that I devoured the whole thing. It came with a couple endive leaves for scooping and eating, and a slice of cucumber and half-tomato for garnish.

The croquetas surprised us, but when I say they were like crab cakes I mean that as a compliment. The outside breading provided a good contrast to the soft interior, good flavoring all around, if not particularly Spanish. The pisto manchego we enjoyed, though again nothing stood out about it; it was just good.

And the paella was terrific. In that small bowl they crammed two portions of seasoned rice and about eight different kinds of meat: a scallop, a clam, a mussel, several shrimp, some calamari, some andouille sausage, some chicken, and probably one other kind of seafood that I'm forgetting. We devoured that and then finished off the loaf of bread, and found ourselves stuffed and happy, with no room for dessert.

Mark spoke highly of the sangria; for my part, I got a pomegranate green tea that was very subtly flavored. It was bottled, so I don't know whether they get any credit for it other than picking it, but it was a nice complement to the rich flavors of the meal.

And for all that, the price was very reasonable. Unless you're famished or want something to take home, you probably don't need to order the full paella, but you should definitely at least taste the tapas. And don't forget the bread. You might need to order your own loaf.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Field, San Diego


The Field
Irish pub in San Diego's Gaslamp district

The Irish pub near our house, in downtown Mountain View, has terrific food, and has perhaps spoiled our expectations for all other Irish pubs. After all, the point of going to an Irish pub is mainly to drink Guinness. That didn't stop us from trying out The Field, on Fifth Street in San Diego's Gaslamp district, during this year's Comic-Con.

Raucous music? Check. (It's live every night except the one we chose, it seems.) Wooden construction and crowded tables? Check. Guinness? Check. Friendly, Irish-accented waitstaff? Check. The Field has everything you could want in an Irish pub, in addition to which the menu offers a tantalizing-sounding dish called the boxty, essentially a wrap made with a potato pancake instead of a tortilla.

As with any pub, the appetizers were great. Though this pub doesn't have the curry chicken we love at our regular pub, it does offer curry fries, and if you like curry, you should order a double portion, because these will disappear fast. The potato skins and onion rings were good, crispy and hot, as were the regular fries, but the curry fries were something special.

Alas, not so the main dishes. We split a chicken sage boxty, and while the potato pancake was good, the chicken was sadly bland, the sage almost entirely unnoticeable. The dishes our friends got (a Guinness beef stew and the fish and chips) were similarly described as "good, but not great." If they would just put some of that curry sauce into the chicken boxty, I think they'd have a real hit on their hands. We can't fault the size of the portions, nor the service--the staff were terrific, comping us a meal after spilling beer on our friend (pictured above in his stylish "LOL Trekkies" shirt) and being attentive throughout the meal. And the atmosphere and Guinness were top-notch. If you're going to The Field, our recommendation is to order a couple helpings of curry fries and some drinks, and while away a pleasant couple of hours in a very Irish atmosphere. But for dinner, there are too many great places in the Gaslamp for us to go back here.

Basic Kitchen and Bar, San Diego



Basic Kitchen and Bar
Flatbread pizza and salad in an artsy, urban setting

During San Diego Comic-Con, we enjoy going to all the different restaurants in the beautiful downtown Gaslamp district. When we were in the mood for pizza, though, we couldn't think of a standout place, so we asked a friend for a recommendation. "Basic Kitchen has been getting great reviews," he said, so off we went, to the other side of the ballpark at 10th and J Streets, to a place that looks like an art gallery/bar but has wonderful food as well.

Inside, even in the restaurant area, the feel persists. There's very little standing on ceremony; you seat yourself, and eventually a waiter in t-shirt and ripped jeans comes over to take care of you. Meanwhile, you can enjoy the music and the industrial interior, looking as if someone ripped the innards out of an old brick studio and threw a bunch of tables and chairs into it.

The menu is simplicity itself: choose a red or white sauce for your pizza, small or large, cheese or no, and then pick from toppings like sun-dried tomato, black olive, mushroom, fresh basil, bacon...broccoli...mashed potatoes... (those last couple recommended for white pizzas, it is noted). You can also have a salad if you want. One size, one salad.

We recommend, well, everything. The salad is delicious, with a tangy fruit vinaigrette and the right balance of candied walnut, gorgonzola, pear, and greens. The pizzas have a crispy thin crust, but even our friend who loves Chicago-style pizza liked it because it's not greasy and dripping as New York pizza should be and thin-crust traditionally is. The toppings are all fresh--on our sausage, olive, fresh basil, and mushroom pizza, it was the sausage that got lost in the other flavors.

If not prompt, the service was at least extremely friendly and helpful. We all felt comfortable and resolved to make this stop one of our Comic-Con traditions. Take a little detour and make sure to visit when you're in the area.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Gordon Biersch, Palo Alto


Gordon Biersch
Brew pub food (famous garlic fries) and good beer

If you've attended a Giants game at Pac Bell SBC that ballpark where they play now, you have more than likely caught the heavenly scent of garlic and fried potatoes. Gordon Biersch has stands doing a brisk business in garlic fries throughout the stadium, but you may not have known that the now-nationwide restaurant/brewery chain started in Palo Alto, on the site of the old
("once historic"?) Bijou Theater.

The front windows are removable for those warm summer nights, and the high theater ceilings give the restaurant an airy, open feel. There aren't many tables in the restaurant area, so if you go on a busy weeknight, you may be better off sitting in the raucous sports bar area in the back. Full menu is available there, so you won't miss out on any of the great dishes to be had.

We started going here after class once a week during our screenwriting classes at Stanford, and though we're not taking the classes now, the current students have continued the tradition and are nice enough to invite us along, so we find ourselves there more Thursday nights than not. Sometimes we tried other restaurants, because the one drawback of Gordon Biersch is that it can be pretty loud, but we keep coming back.

You could dine for three or four nights on the appetizers alone. The tapas plate, the southwestern egg rolls, the calamari, and of course, the garlic fries, are particular favorites, but you can't go wrong here. The salads are large and fresh, though we usually end up getting just a Caesar or wedge salad (get it with the vinaigrette dressing--it comes with loads of cheese as it is) along with our order.

No main dish has ever disappointed. The sandwiches are big, often hard to finish, which is a shame because they also come with a portion of the garlic fries. Good bread and good meat--what more could you want? The BBQ is good, though compared to other places around here, it's nothing to get excited about. All of their sauces carry lots of flavor, and the ones that say they're spicy really are, at least to my delicate palate. I suspect hardier souls would be somewhat disappointed in the heat, though not the flavor. They do stir-fry and meatloaf, pecan-crusted chicken and seared ahi tuna, steak and jambalaya all well. Pizzas are good too, with nice traditional crust and good sauce, and they'll happily bring you a side of marinara to dip the crusts into (though the pizza dough is good, it's a little bland).

We rarely have room to try the desserts, but I can heartily recommend the carrot cake and the key lime cheesecake from sampling other plates. One of these weeks, we'll eat light enough to be able to fit one of those in, or else we'll just take it home and have it later.

It's moderately priced--entrees can range up to $24 for a good fish or steak, but you can also get a good pizza or sandwich for $10-15. The beers are about average, $5 or so, and they make a good Arnold Palmer if you're on the wagon. It's not the cheapest place in Palo Alto, but it's certainly far from the most expensive, and it's a great place to take a group of people who are in the mood for different things. Nobody will leave unhappy--that's why we keep going back.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Empire Tap Room, Palo Alto


Empire Grill & Tap Room
California cuisine, moderately priced

Two of the places we visit most often in Palo Alto are Buca di Beppo and Gordon Biersch, across from each other on Emerson between Hamilton and Forest. Next to Buca's is a little place called the Empire Tap Room, which we'd often said "we should try" and never did. A while ago, we tried it and liked it, so when we had a friend in town, we went again and were not disappointed.

Inside, it looks like an upscale bar. The patio was crowded, so we opted for the table inside right away rather than the 20-30 minute wait to sit outside. I've since read glowing reviews of the patio--will have to give it a try for next time. But the inside itself is not too bad, though our table seemed to be a favored stopping point for some gnats, maybe residents of the large plant next to us. The staff were all friendly and helpful, and the tables neat and clean.

The food, overall, was excellent. They brought some fresh bread, with oil and balsamic vinegar upon request. Service was a little slow, probably because the outside patio was so crowded, but it was nothing that bothered us much. Our companion ordered the New York steak (sorry, I'm awful about remembering steak types--it was flank or strip) and we split the halibut special (accepting the $2 split plate charge), topped with red pepper puree and accompanied by roasted potatoes. Both dishes included assorted vegetables julienne, and we ordered the parmesan roasted asparagus on the side.

The steak was (I understand) good. The halibut was delicious, tender but firm with good flavor. The red pepper puree was okay, but didn't really add much to the fish from my perspective. The potatoes were excellent, not too soft and really flavorful, and the roasted asparagus was really good, hot and crunchy and tasty. We also ordered their french fries, which were very good, crispy and well-seasoned, though the homemade ketchup tasted a bit too much like spaghetti sauce and the aioli, though tasty, was a little runny. We ate comfortably and weren't too full when the meal was done. For a place called a "tap room," the Empire has a good selection of wines, which were consumed without complaint and seemed to go well with the meal (I had a Diet Coke myself, which was also good).

It's a little pricey, but the food is good, the service is good, and if you want to sit outside, there are few places with as large a patio. If you just want good brew pub food, it's hard to beat Gordon Biersch across the street, and I think eight times out of ten we'd go back there rather than return to Empire.